Crist Changes Jersey — And The Game
Gov. Charlie Crist’s split from the Republican Party prompted fierce outrage and plenty of uncertainty Thursday, with the looming three-way U.S. Senate race bound to test personal loyalties and political strategy.
In his late-afternoon announcement in a downtown park in his St. Petersburg hometown, Crist insisted that continuing his campaign as a candidate with no-party affiliation is “the right thing for America, it’s the right thing for Florida, it’s the right thing for people.”
He added, “I know it’s uncharted territory. I don’t have either party helping me. I need you.”
Crist’s gambit sends Florida’s Senate race careening into the unknown, turning what had been a combative Aug. 24 Republican primary with Republican frontrunner Marco Rubio into an unpredictable general election battle with Crist, Rubio and presumptive Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.
Each man is likely to claim a slice of the Florida electorate, with Crist the most likely to draw from both party bases. In keeping with his new persona, Crist also is handing out new campaign business cards.
The color: purple, a blend of Republican “red” and Democratic “blue.”
It clearly will take weeks to assess the impact of Crist’s decision. But across Florida Republican circles, the move caused some Crist loyalists to think long and hard about whether to hang with the retooled campaign, while also drawing bitter renunciations of the governor as a selfish opportunist.
“He’s been gone a long time in my opinion,” said Florida Republican Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “I think this just makes it kind of official.”
Thrasher said that as one of his first post-defection acts, he planned to take Crist’s portrait off the wall at the Florida Republican Party headquarters and put it up for sale on E-Bay.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush echoed what many Republicans said – that they believed Crist, who had fallen far behind Rubio in polls on the GOP primary, was looking out for Crist.
“This decision is not about policy or principles,” Bush said in a statement. “It is about what he believes is in his political self-interest."
But for other Republicans, Crist’s switch to a candidate with no party affiliation left them conflicted.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Marty Fiorentino, a Jacksonville lobbyist who has been a big campaign fund-raiser for Crist and his predecessor, Bush. “Charlie’s been a friend a long, long time. I’m going to think about it later.”
In the Tallahassee lobbying firm Smith and Ballard, loyalties were similarly torn, with former Crist fund-raiser Brian Ballard saying he had not broken with the governor, while his partner and father-in-law Jim Smith abandoned the Crist campaign.
Lobbyist Greg Turbeville was among those sticking by Crist. “I was going to vote for him in August and November, now I only have to vote for him once,” said Turbeville. “I’m a Charlie Crist Republican. And I’m a Jeb Bush Republican.”
Still, Crist seemed poised to retain few party loyalists – and among his first tasks will be having to build a new campaign team. Crist’s Senate campaign manager, Eric Eikenberg and press secretary Andrea Saul are among those expected to leave the revamped, no-party campaign. Crist’s 2006 running mate, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp said Thursday night that he planned to support the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio.
In a statement, Rubio said Crist “still doesn’t get it,” saying the race is not about party affiliation, but rather philosophy.
“I am a Republican because it is the natural home for all Americans who believe in limited government, individual freedom, a strong defense and traditional values,” Rubio said. “I entered this race because I believe no other candidate can be trusted to go to Washington and stand up for these values.”
Longtime Broward County Republican State Committeeman Ed Kennedy predicted that Crist will “get very little Republican support.”
“The way I see it, he’s going to be fighting Meek for the Democratic vote,” Kennedy said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. But Charlie right now is just about as disliked as President Obama among Republicans.”
Crist’s switch Thursday capped a surreal year in Florida politics.
Within days of session’s end last year, Crist announced he was a candidate to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez – becoming the runaway frontrunner and winning endorsements from leaders of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and most of the Republican establishment nationally and in Florida.
But his embrace of Obama at a February 2009 campaign appearance in Fort Myers turned toxic as the Rubio campaign flaunted the image even as the former House speaker’s poll numbers grew with the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Crist’s hand-picked Florida Republican Party chairman, Jim Greer, was ousted in January amid a financial scandal and replaced by the more conservative Thrasher. And earlier this month, Crist’s veto of a GOP-backed teacher merit pay bill, sponsored by Thrasher, may be eventually remembered as the governor’s political Rubicon.
“He turned his back on the Republican Party,” Kennedy said.
Several Republicans, though, acknowledged that Crist was capable of running a renegade campaign under the no-party banner. But he will likely have to rebrand himself as a different, iconoclastic candidate who can generate buzz and voter support through social networking meet-ups and other Obama-like campaign tactics.
He also remains governor – a platform that draws him boundless opportunities for free media attention.
“Charlie is not someone to be underestimated,” said Mark Guzzetta, a Boca Raton Republican fund-raiser. “He’s always been an amazing campaigner and a consummate fund-raiser. But he may have more trouble finding funds now.”
Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, predicted that Crist’s man-in-the-middle stance will gain some support among Democrats – but that Meek will remain the overwhelming choice for most in the party.
“Crist has always been center right, generally,” Gelber said. “But he pivots better than most officials….but what had been political versatility, now has turned into a character flaw within the Republican Party.”
Still, Gelber said Crist’s re-tooling will only aid Meek, whose candidacy so far has been overwhelmed by the focus on a Republican primary contest. Put all three candidates into a November contest, and Meek wins, he forecast.
“Anytime you have two Republicans in a race against a single Democrat, I don’t know how you could figure out it helps the Republican,” he said.
While the Senate race is certain to prove explosive, Crist opened his new campaign Thursday by promising to bring civility and reason to Washington, where he added, “our political system is broken.”
And while plenty of Republicans took political shots at him Thursday, Crist never mentioned the party’s name in his announcement. But he did distance himself from the party.
“I could’ve chosen to stay in the primary. But frankly, for me, it’s your decision,” Crist told the crowd of a couple hundred in St. Petersburg. “It’s not one club’s decision or the other. Or even a club within that club…We go straight to November, and it’s your decision to make.”